Rhoden's ego is so big, he could carry it around in a fucking satchel. Last night he drops into the Heavens To Betsy, hair slick as an emerging otter and homes in on Ilse with smart bomb precision. She's dressed in a cut off white halter and white denim shorts. Tanned skin fills in the gaps: she looks like a humbug.
'Pint of Caffrey's,' he oozes, without looking up from where a steel ring jounces in the pitted knot of her belly button. Some poor bastard with fluff on his lip pours while Rhoden checks his profile and full-on in the mirror behind the bar. 'S'yer name?' he asks, preening hardly completed. She barely misses a beat, to her credit, continuing with her drink like he's one step down on the food chain from a low-life, chivvying for a cup of tea on Buttermarket Street.
'Ilse. Now fuck off.'
Over by the multi-screen videos which bounce coloured light off the sweating curve of his brow, he eventually wangles her address and a kiss. Her friend stands by, clutching her handbag and tutting like a Geiger counter. No matter that Ilse's cunted on dry white wine spritzers or she's persisted in calling him 'Wanker' rather than Iain, his Christian name. No matter that she'd rather eyeball that six-foot-fuck-off bouncer on the door with the questing pecs. He was in. Tomorrow, when she was trying to shape the night in her boozy mind, he could call and fob her off with moments of affection that might (and probably would, going on prior experience) precipitate a second date. And second date usually meant a little wet work back at your place or mine.
'Can I walk you home?'
'Go myself. Taxi. Why don't you fuck off back to your mother, you sad bastard. Anyone tell you you got a face like a blistered piss-pot?' Rhoden laughs at this and gently eats her mouth. Not that Ilse's in any fit state to protest.
The taxi farts off to wherever she came from. Rhoden, he takes back alleys, trolling through the drifts of chip papers and empty cans of Tramp Brew, eyeing the graffiti with the dislocated endeavour of a pissed art critic.
Yoyo's sitting on the steps outside their flat. 'You tanked?' he asks. 'To the max. You?'
'Gotny bacon? I could murder a bacon sarnie. I could fucking rape a bacon sarnie.'
Rhoden attempts the manoeuvre that is Inserting The Key In The Lock. 'I thought you were vegetarian.' 'Are you pulling my pisser, Rodders, cos if you are, I'll give you what fucking for.' Dry cider ghosts wrap themselves around Rhoden's head as they pile over the threshold. In the kitchen, Yoyo cremates a few rashers and tells of a woman he met down the ginnel by Warrington Bank Quay station. 'We were both having a slash. Pure coincidence. She goes: "You could hear that fucking racket from Wilderspool Causeway. What yer got in there, a fucking garden hose?" So I goes, all witty like, "Yeah, jewanna sprinkle some of it on yer petals" and she says: "Yer what?" so I'm concentrating on trying to lower me standards - obviously not yer common or garden sophisticated bint - when I feel her mittens on me gristle and - get this - I haven't even finished pissing yet. Just think! Fucking hell! Wouldn't mind chowing down on her crabmeat junction. You can keep your fucking bacon."'
There's a silence, spoilt occasionally by Yoyo's mouthing of his supper and more aimless wittering. Rhoden thinks of Ilse, his eyes fixed on the punctuative slashes of red in Yoyo's maw. How she stretched at one point and the fabric of her vest tautened in a series of horizontal shadows between the pimpled impertinence of her breasts. He imagines standing with her looking out at some great, romantic vista: the reflection of the Bingo Hall lights on the Mersey, say, and rolling his hand over the blunt jut of her chest like the slatted lid of his granddad's writing bureau as it closed. 'Iain,' she'd say, looking deep into his eyes with liquid yearning. 'Iain, darling, backshaft me senseless.' Yoyo falls asleep mid-chew and Rhoden leaves him to it. He doesn't so much get on with Yoyo as abide him: he's there to halve Rhoden's rent, that's all.
In the bedroom, his bare walls are dotted with the corpses of midges and moths he's swatted; all possess a particular resonance. This gnat smeared against a poster of Pamela Anderson, for example; he managed that with the back of his hand while Pris sucked him off after a beer, Temezepam and fistfight soiree under Seven Arches. Or that bluebottle, which breathed its last just before a well tossed spam sandwich consigned it to dogshit heaven.
Ah, Ilse, how I'd like to swat something that crawled on you while I crawled on you. We could leave it there and get a tattooist to mark the spot forever. Silverfish on your thigh, earwig on your cleavage. To remember me by.
To some late night American tosh that was more sit-trag than -com, Rhoden tries to coax something from the beery collapse between his legs; falls asleep with saliva drying on his fist.
Ilse's up with the narcs. She hears Nula in the dive next to hers whooping as something flirts through her veins. Ilse rises, only, it's as though her head is a lump of expectorated bubblegum, left there on the pillow while her neck teases out in a thinning umbilicus.
'Jesus crease us,' she whispers. 'Make me die. Puh-lease.' Somehow she makes it to the window, where she blurts a soup of thin vomit and obscenity on to the patio roof below. 'A good night. For a change. And aw, fuck.' As Rhoden worms into her thoughts.
'Nula? Nula, did I give that cockhole my address last night? Did ah?' Nula's far, far away, and Ilse doesn't know what's more distressing: the hump in her friend's gut or the lack of colour to her eyes. Pregnant six months, her baby goes wherever she goes: Seven Arches on a Saturday night, say, with Pris and Della where she flirts with the boys and drops gelatin strips of acid. The baby is well travelled, though it hasn't even had a suck of air yet. Season tickets to the planet Wow. First class. 'Whoooh, Ilse. You should have jumped on board for this one.' 'You're going to give birth to Timothy fucking Leary if you ain't careful girl. You'll bear down, in them stirrups, an' a fuckin' Blue Meanie'll fly outya twat. Talk to me when you come back from the mothership. I'm goin' for some egg.'
'Egg,' says Nula, allowing the word's glottal terminus to catch in her throat. She lifts her shirt and runs her palms over the bulge. A papery sound - like the schuss of a hangnail against an emery board - turns Ilse's stomach. Before she leaves, a spill of light ignites Nula's swelling and she sees, for a second, a blue, skittering suggestion uncoil in the transparency of her flesh.
The towers of her estate close in like bunched shoulders as she walks the few hundred metres to Mel's. Her hangover wallows in the greased confusion of her guts. Her mind snags on the thought of her future, which angers her because it's her mum's favourite theme, not hers. Still, it unfolds before her - the days, weeks, years - with all the empty involvement and superficiality of a Jeffrey Archer novel. It would be nice if things could be revealed or hinted at, but not here, not these days. The brittle lassitude of all her tomorrows spins out, fragile as a wormcast. She'll be an echo of everything close to her. There's nothing new to knock her off course.
She mouths a Marlboro Light while Mel fries her an egg.
'Heavy night, chuck?' asks Mel.
'Could say that. Went to town.'
'Same as usual. Packed. Boring. The only way to gee it up is to get wasted.' 'How's your job going?' Mel turfs the egg on to a bun with a few congealing rashers. Ilse drowns the lot in ketchup. She bolts it with chasers from a chipped mug of Typhoo.
'Ot hucking yob?' she murmurs wetly through her mouthful. 'I ant urked hor hucking ayiz.'
Swallow. Slurp. 'I haven't worked for fucking ages. Give me a job now and I wouldn't know what to fucking do with it.' She's sucking on her next cigarette before swallowing the last bite. 'I gone past that desperate stage, Mel,' she says. 'I've gone from desperate to angry to numb as a fucking zombie. Honest, if some fucker came up to me and said "Here's your Ford Escort TD, your fifteen grand a year, type me a memo please Ms Carmichael" I wouldn't know where to put me face.'
Mel leans on the counter, rests her chin on her arms so that she's looking up into Ilse's eyes. 'Such an angry young chicken,' she whispers. 'What's your man think about all this?'
Ilse clucks her tongue. 'Mel, for someone who's got her finger into everyone's bacon sarnie, you don't know nothing. I'm a free spirit.' She grinds her cigarette butt into the grease on the plate, staring into its smear of ash with an expression approaching pain. 'It'll stay like that, too. I'm not running with no-one from this fucking cess-pit.' 'Hark at her!' caws a craven figure who seems to have created himself from the sooty skin on the wallpaper by the caff window. 'Precious little minx. Have some pride in where you were brought up. Don't think you're any better than the rest of us.'
'God forbid,' spits Ilse, screeching her chair legs back on the lino.
'Because then I might be able to feel good about being elsewhere. And any way, why don't you mind your fucking business, arsewipe.' She ignores the tirade as it rains upon her, along with a barrage of half-chewed morsels. Outside, she smells fried food in her hair and the keen, bitter reek of dope as three kids slope past, sharing a J.
Comes a blatting, farting noise, high-pitched like the sound of an overweight wasp played through an amp. She ignores the bike as it whips past. Ignores it even more when the rider stops and turns and cruises back to take another look.
She knows the voice. Christ, it's Rhoden. Head down, she piles forward, arms crossed against him and the quickening chill as it gusts down through the bared teeth of fencing by the dual carriageway. He keeps pace, lazily swinging the bike this way and that as his control wanes.
'Missed ya!' he says. 'Will you give my helmet a tug?'
She stops. 'You fucking what?'
'Give us a hand with my helmet. Help us get it off.' And then, with mock grandeur: 'I want to look upon you with my own eyes. Instead of through this placky visor.'
'Wanker,' she says, as if she were passing on the time of day. 'Why don't you cock away off and suck a dog's minge? I don't want you around.' She's about to hurry on when a thought occurs to her. 'How did you know where I live?'
'Caught up with the bint you was out with last night, didn't I? Works down the fish market, doesn't she? Karen. Karen told me.' He struggles with the helmet: his hair mushrooms as it comes free.
'Thank you Karen. Look, I've got to go home. I'm babysitting this afternoon.' 'Give me half an hour. I want to show you something.'
'I bet you do.'
'Naw, come one. Thirty minutes. It'll be a laugh.' A splintered ball of morning sunlight breaks free of tower block's concrete edge behind him. His face darkens and she has to shield her eyes to find its detail once more. A bright smile hangs there. She softens. 'Okay. But I have to drop in on my flatmate. And no arsing around from you or that's it. Home time.'
Back at her place, Nula's fast asleep. An ashtray filled with roaches trembles uncertainly on her belly.
'Thought you said you was babysitting.' Rhoden muscles his way through the narrow hallway, clotted with coats and drying blankets hanging from the banisters.
'I was. But she's all right. She's kipping.' She moves the ashtray and wraps Nula in a sleeping bag which covers the sofa. 'Let's go. I could use some time out. Where are we off to, any way?' 'Surprise.'
They power along the Chester Road; her hair feels good in this engineered breeze. Parallel, the Mersey surges listless and soiled, like slow blood in an overtapped vein. Over the bridge, Rhoden sweeps left and makes a series of tight turns till they're on a steep lane punctuated by sleeping policemen. At the top, he plunges into a green throat and she catches a delicious glimpse of the swollen town sweeping away far below them. Up ahead: woods and fields and cottages and a gutted farmhouse. Acres of rape turn the skyline to fire.
Rhoden brings the bike to a juddering halt by a phalanx of copper beech trees. Into a dappled gap she follows him and she's thinking - What the hell am I doing here if he tries it on I'll tear his bollocks off - but somehow she knows he's safe. She's about to ask him how much further when he stops.
'We is here.' The wide block of his leather jacket moves aside and she sees the tin bath and the woman sitting up in it, her face scratched and scarred so deeply that no features remain. Ilse feels her legs turn to pulp. 'Jesus,' she hisses. 'Jesus crease us. Did you?' She approaches and sees that the woman is a mannequin, a dummy. The force of her relief is just as shocking. 'Did you do this?' she manages. Rhoden's scuffing about behind the bath, truffling in the roots and soil. He picks up a dead shrew, scrutinises it, tosses it in the bath.
'Nah, some joker, obvious. I brought you here because she reminds me of you.' Ilse snorts bitter laughter. 'Smooth talking cunt, aren't you? Any way,' she regards the stiffly reclining doll, tit deep in brackish water, with regret, 'this babe's probably got more life in her than me.' 'Don't talk wet, girl,' he says, chancing an arm round her shoulder. She leans into him, thinking, what the hell.
Water boatmen skate on surface tension. His fingers test the plimsoll line of her tolerance. Rhoden's mouth tastes sour: dead cigarettes and stale beer. Who cares - so does hers. He frees her breasts and they pucker beneath the canopy's chill. He thickens in her hand. As their movements grow more fluid and urgent, her eyes turn to the sightless creature in the bath, the water creatures in their tiny universe, oblivious to the vastness beyond these tin confines. He lurches towards the delicious moment of absence, when his body and mind are detached by a sliver of alien heat. Her thoughts fold inwards, to the sleeping curve of flesh in Nula's tummy. It turns its head towards her and opens its eyes: ash trickles from them. Its yawning mouth carries no sounds, only rank, concrete ghosts of what it will become.
'I only want something, someone' she mutters into his shoulder as he dwindles within and against her. 'someone to save me. Someone to pull me along. To give me wings.'
He presses her back against the cold bark of a tree. The lack of movement anywhere is as comforting to her as a blanket.